Georges Perec at the Café de la Mairie - review by Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan

The Meaning of an Apple-Green Citroën

Georges Perec at the Café de la Mairie

 

‘I seek, at once, both the eternal and the ephemeral.’ It’s a line from the French writer Georges Perec. Perec, you may remember, is most famous – notorious – for writing La Disparition, a whole novel without the letter E (Gilbert Adair’s virtuosic English translation is titled A Void). What fewer people know is that he followed it up with Les Revenentes, a shorter text in which E is the only vowel used. What a silly thing! A parlour game. The work of a frivolous moment. Or is it? I think Perec is my favourite writer, and his games go deep. Of everything he wrote, he would claim that this univocalic aphorism, Je cherche en même temps l’éternel et l’éphémère, was the line he loved the most (but how to translate it adequately!). It encapsulates a principle that was fundamental to his writing and to his view of the world: that when we think about ephemeral things, we are not thinking ephemeral thoughts; rather, we are looking for what the everyday can tell us on a deeper level, for timeless truths about ourselves.

The same year that Perec wrote Les Revenentes, 1972, he was invited to join the board of a new leftist journal, Cause commune. Its purpose, according to its manifesto, was ‘to undertake an anthropology of contemporary mankind … an investigation of everyday life at every level, right down to the recesses and basements that are normally ignored or suppressed’. An ideal mission statement, perhaps, for someone seeking the eternal in the ephemeral. By its fifth issue, the journal was touting a new word for this everyday anthropology: l’infraordinaire, or the infraordinary.

On 18 October 1974, Perec set out to look for the infraordinary in the place Saint-Sulpice, a large square on the Left Bank with a fountain and an imposing church (the third largest in the city), the curiously asymmetrical facade of which is the result of an abortive attempt

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